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The Pangs of Unrequited Longing

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Hailing from Portland, Oregon, electronic music band Chromatics has earned much critical acclaim after many line-up changes and transitioning their sound “from abrasive punk-rock to sultry, cloying, and evocative dance-pop” (The Phoenix, 2012). The band’s soundscape is characterized by “rudimentary drum-machine throbs, cool synth washes, reverbed vocals, and gauzy shoegaze distortion that crashes over the music like waves” (Slant, 2012) which synthesizes effectively with lead vocalist Ruth Radelet’s detached, romantically jaded vocals to generate “a dreamy, after-the-afterparty atmosphere that feels like it could go on all night long” (The Phoenix, 2012).


The Chromatics are most potent when dealing with the (arguably perennial) subject position of unrequited love. Echoing, repetitive vocals, languid pacing, and Radelet’s somewhat lethargic vocals help create a rich synth-pop texture that excavates the stagnation and loneliness felt when pining for a distant, unattainable other.



The title track from their fourth studio album, ‘Kill for Love’, opens with one of the most evocative verses I’ve come across in recent years: ‘Everybody’s got a secret to hide/ Everyone is slipping backwards’. The lyrics effortlessly conjure a lonely and depressed persona:

'I drank the water and I felt alrightI took a pill almost every nightIn my mind I was waiting for changeWhile the world just stayed the sameEverybody's got a secret to hideEveryone is slipping backwardsI can't remember if I like what I saidI can't remember it went straight to my headI kept a bottle by the foot of the bedI put a pillow right on top of my head'


Then the the haunting chorus sinks in: ‘But I’d kill for love/ Kill for love …’



The person being addressed is never clearly defined or addressed, the lyrical persona may simple be addressing him (or her) in her head. The significant other’s gender isn’t really the focus here, The Chromatics’ “wistful paeans with women as their subject feel less sexually ambiguous than romantically ambivalent” (The Phoenix, 2012). In ‘Lady’, Radelet pines after a distant muse, expressing deep longing without ever coming across as being cloying: ‘If I could only call you my lady/ Baby I could be your man … Baby I just want you to come back/ Give us all something to do’.



Cherry’ continues in the same vein, this time serving as a soundtrack to a dying relationship. Pitchfork (2012) summarizes the track’s appeal brilliantly:

“Johnny Jewel and Co. hit their stride straight away, launching into a gorgeously airy synth melody underpinned by a clean, driving bass line, while Ruth Radelet cuts straight to the point with direct lyrics like, "I can't see a light at the end for us anymore". It might be a break-up song, but it's not a self-pitying one-- Radelet confirms as much in the chorus, sounding composed as she sings, "I can't keep running all the time". The whole song plays out like a bittersweet epiphany, but one tinged with the subtle sense of euphoria that Chromatics have excelled at all year.”


It’s precisely this elusive quality – expressing loneliness and melancholy in a confessional manner without being self-pitying or self-defeating – that makes tracks like these brilliant accompaniments for solitary moody moments of introspection where the silver lining of things remains clearly in sight.




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